Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Your Body During a Breakup: The Science of a Broken Heart

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Breakups are emotional roller coasters. Actually that’s not true. If a breakup was anything like a roller coaster the end would be visible from the start, you could say ‘no thanks’ to the ride and at the end of it, for a hefty sum the memory could be savoured forever with a flimsy cardboard-framed photo.

Breakups are are more like being under a roller coaster. 

Before we knew the science we knew the feeling, and used words associated with physical pain – hurt, pain, ache – are used describe the pain of a relationship breakup. Now we know why. The emotional pain of a breakup and physical pain have something in common – they both activate the same part of the brain

Brain scans of people recently out of a relationship have revealed that social pain (the emotional pain from a breakup or rejection) and physical pain share the same neural pathways.

In one study, 40 people who had recently been through an unwanted breakup had their brains scanned while they looked at pictures of their exes and thought about the breakup. As they stared at the photos, the part of the brain associated with physical pain lit up.

As explained by researcher Ethan Kross, ‘We found that powerfully inducing feelings of social rejection activate regions of the brain that are involved in physical pain sensation, which are rarely activated in neuroimaging studies of emotion.’

He continues, ‘These findings are consistent with the idea that the experience of social rejection, or social loss more generally, may represent a distinct emotional experience that is uniquely associated with physical pain.’

In further support of the overlap between physical and social pain, Tylenol (an over the counter medication for physical pain) has been shown to reduce emotional hurt.

Research has found that people who took Tylenol (an over-the-counter medication for physical pain) for three weeks reported less hurt feelings and social pain on a daily basis than those who took a placebo.

The effect was also evident in brain scans. When feelings of rejection were induced, the part of the brain associated with physical pain lit up in participants who didn’t take Tylenol. Those who took Tylenol showed significantly less activity in that part of the brain.

Nobody is suggesting that the broken hearted turn to pain medication to reduce their lean towards Kleenex, Baskin-Robbins and repeated viewings of Love Actually. Long term use will cane the liver. Somebody else is waiting to fall in love with you, but you and your liver have to stay friends forever.

The Physical Side of a Broken Heart

The human brain loves love. Being in love takes the lid off the happy hormones, dopamine and oxytocin, and the brain bathes in the bliss. But when the one you love leaves, the supply of feel good hormones takes a dive and the brain releases stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine.

In small doses, stress hormones are heroic, ensuring we respond quickly and effectively to threat. However in times of long-term distress such as a broken heart, the stress hormones accumulate and cause trouble. Here’s what’s behind the physical symptoms of a breakup:

  • Too much cortisol in the brain sends blood to the major muscle groups. They tense up ready to respond to the threat (fight or flight). However, without real need for a physical response the muscles have no opportunity to expend the energy.

    Muscles swell, giving rise to headaches, a stiff neck and that awful feeling of your chest being squeezed.

  • To ensure the muscles have an adequate blood supply, cortisol diverts blood away from the digestive system.

    This can cause tummy trouble such as cramps, diarrhea or appetite loss. 

  • When stress hormones run rampant, the immune system can struggle, increasing vulnerability to bugs and illnesses.

    Hence the common ‘break-up cold’.

  • There is a steady release of cortisol.

    This might cause sleep problems and interfere with the capacity to make sound judgements 

  • Breakups activate the area of your brain that processes craving and addiction.

    Losing a relationship can throw you into a type of withdrawal, which is why it’s hard to function – you ache for your ex, sometimes literally, and can’t get him/her out of your head. Like any addiction, this will pass.

In a relationship, your mind, your body and the core of you adjust to being intimately connected someone. When that someone leaves, the brain has to readjust. The pain can be relentless but eventually the body chemistry will change back to normal and the hurt will diminish.

Getting through a breakup is as much a physical process as an emotional one. Remember that, and know that it will get easier. Keep going. You’ll get there.

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301 Comments

Cindy

I thought it was just me, my chest pain is very similar to when I watched my precious mom pass away , its heartbreaking literally 💖

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Samantha p

to be honest this article is saving my life I was wondering why I felt so suicidal why I literally could not handle the physical pain in my chest I could not understand in.
my brain my thinking was over it for my body couldn’t handle it the withdrawals of not being physically intimate anymore I just could not understand that I can say one thing a lot of prayer and fasting can help anyone get into prayer and fasting reading positive reading the Bible fasting and praying to Jesus positive thoughts this has been the worst pain in my life this was like if you had a good relationship with your mom or dad it was like losing a parent at the age of 7 or 8 I didn’t know people attached so strongly profoundly we only work together for 7 months it was so

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angel

He is on my mind every min Im awake This physical pain in my chest is unbearable, every breath I take it hurts without him in my life,the uncontrollable stressful crying,I cant function ,Im not thinking, eating or drinking properly due to stress,I am emotionally and physically exhausted , I just want to go to sleep and never wake up,its been 5 weeks now, I think I need a therapist so I dont take him back and NEVER have to feel this way again!

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SadOldGal

I know how u feel. Its been about 47 days since my ex brokeup with me and i still feel heartbroken and depressed and i still often think about things that transpired and led to our end. But it gets easier. Its not as painful as it used to. And i agree that time does heal all our hurts. Take it a day at a time. I find comfort in those who are experiencing the same way as I do. And it always helps to just keep looking forward. Just keep living life. There is hope for us. And we can we happy if we choose to be.

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Katelyn

I can’t cope with the pain of my break up. Can’t eat or sleep, I feel depressed. Can’t sleep without the sleeping pills. And to make things worse I think I’m getting addicted to them. How can I make myself feel better and sleep better?

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Chico

It’s been a year since I broke up with my ex whom I still work with twice a week. I thought I could be his friend again. I was wrong. He has just engaged with a younger woman and announced his engagement on Facebook that I have so many mutual friends. The impact, rejection and isolation I felt were much larger than I expected. And the pain is back. I think about our past whenever I am alone. It has been unbelievably stressful and on some nights I really wanted to end the pain. Yet, I have a daughter to look after and feel trapped in this painful state of mind. My family and friends cheer me up and say, “Let it go. You are fine.” I really appreciate what they say and I do believe “Time will heal.” But in a meantime, I’ve been dealing with emotional roller coaster every day. A year ago, I could not take this pain and stress and went back to the circle of his friends, pretending I was absolutely fine. In fact, I tried to believe I was ok till he announced his engagement a couple of weeks ago. Suddenly, something was broken again in me. Now, I have to go through the healing journey. Hope I can do it this time.

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Reader-A

Yes, you can heal and be done with this chapter of your life, for good. Why would you waste time on someone that wasn’t for you? There are plenty of men slipping through your fingers because you are too busy stressing over ancient history!
Change your point of view about men and relationships that don’t last… you enjoy the time and are fine moving on to the next Love of your life, do not waste anymore time!
Get yourself out there dating, online date, and go meet guys weekly! and you’ll see that you’ve been wasting your precious time for nothing! Lots of men waiting to Love you!!

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Sharon

I came across this website by accident and thank god I did! Its only just over 2 weeks since I discovered that my husband of 27 yrs slept with a so called friend of us both.I felt like I was the only one that was suffering all this mental and physical pain but then I read all the other posts and feel that I am not alone. My heart is broken and my world has fallen apart but its that physical ache in the chest that will not go away but am trying to tell myself in time it will. My good friends who are supporting me, (do not have close family) keep telling to not retreat into myself but to keep talking about how I feel, no matter how much they will listen but sometimes you feel as though you are going on about it too much , does anyone else feel like this. Please can someone tell me that in time this pain eases as I really do hope so, just so I can find some peace away from all this pain.

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Juliet

In a lot of respects, the grieving process comes from when you are not getting any answers from an ex as to why he or she behaved in such a way as to cause the break up.
You over-think to the point of doing your own head in.
Friends will say, “oh, you don’t half pick ’em, don’t you” – it always seems to be the friends that are happy in their own relationships that say this – otherwise, they will join in with the slandering of your ex.
When you break up with someone, very often the reason is to save your own sanity, simply because it is just too toxic or the relationship is not going anywhere.
Alot of relationship first meetings are centred around alcohol. Alcohol creates an actor and not necessarily the true character of the person.
It is not always wise to get into another relationship straight away, as you need to re-learn YOU.
I believe a relationship is akin to an ‘investment’ in a bank account.
You invest your time, emotions, trust, thoughts – YOUR ALL!!!!!
If this relationship was an actual bank account, and over a period of time you notice that you are getting very little, or no ‘interest’ in your ‘investment’, you would remove your money and bank elsewhere wouldn’t you?
I believe that the same applies to your broken heart.
Juliet

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